I had forgotten just how big Bottlenose Dolphins were because I haven’t seen any in Cornwall for nearly two years. My last encounter was a pod of about fifty that came charging past when I was paddling off Mousehole, just when my camera decided to have a seizure. Prior to that I have just occasionally come across the inshore pod that roams around the bays of Devon and Cornwall, but it hasn’t been very often.
Today’s encounter was a complete surprise, because (as usual) I was several miles offshore in Mount’s Bay and so beyond the range of the coastal group. I had paddled out from Lamorna Cove, after grinding a bit more enamel off my teeth as I paid the excessive car park charge, and was going to do a big offshore loop down to Porthcurno(ish). Looking for fins wasn’t easy because the light wind blowing against the outgoing tide threw up wavelets which made listening and looking for splashes not easy. Choppy conditions also makes holding a camera steady very difficult (especially when zoomed in). And it tends to get wet…not a good idea because it ain’t waterproof.
I had been paddling for over two hours and had only seen a handful of porpoises so was very pleased to see a larger fin break the surface when I was parallelling the coast about three miles out. I assumed it was a Common Dolphin because it didn’t look very big, but was thrilled when another much bigger appeared nearby, and this was a real whopper.
I was then overtaken by the main group and was greeted with a double jump.
The pod of about ten (could easily have been more…I get so wrapped up in the moment I find it very difficult to count) escorted me for twenty minutes or so.
These are really big powerful creatures, three times the weight of a Common Dolphin, and over six times as big as a Porpoise. And approaching twelve foot long. Yet still completely sleek and agile and nothing lumbering about them at all.
It’s great to be sitting in a kayak at water level and be looking UP at the top of a fin.
I could hear a high-pitched whistling as they swerved about in the clear water beneath me, you can hear it on this GoPro clip (which is in slomo):
On the paddle back to Lamorna I passed another three Bottlenose dolphins trailing the first group by over a mile. This was a bit of a surprise as they usually stick quite close together. Marine Discovery, who also saw these dolphins, say it was a fragmented pod of ‘offshore’ Bottlenose dolphins that were scattered along that bit of coast, about three miles out.
For me in my kayak it is tremendously exciting to see this classic species of dolphin, and even better that they are the ‘offshore’ variety because these are real ocean wanderers and rarely seen.
A bonus ball on the way back (when the sea suddenly smoothed off…typical), was this grizzled old Grey Seal that was ‘bottling’. I’m pretty sure it knew I was only a few feet away but really didn’t care.
Today’s dolphins brings my cetacean species up to six for the year:
I have had the great good fortune to come across another couple of pods of Common Dolphins recently. The first was a very unobtrusive group of four juveniles in the middle of Torbay. I just happened to have a pair of binoculars in the car and gave the sea a quick scan when I arrived in the car park, and could just make out a few fins breaking the surface well over a mile away. The chances of me being able to locate these were very slim as it would take me twenty minutes to get out there, and there was a three foot swell running which makes seeing stuff on the surface difficult because half the time it is hidden by a wave.
However, one leaped clear of the water so I was in luck. I was actually looking UP at the dolphin as it rose out of the top of a swell. That’s one of the benefits of sitting at water level in a kayak….you can never get that kind of unique perspective from a (normal) boat.
They weren’t in a particularly sociable mood, but no less than I might have expected from a quartet of aloof adolescents. Even so, they half-heartedly swam along side in my pathetic pressure-wave for a few moments.
The wall-to-wall cloud was briefly interrupted by a burst of sunshine that instantly transformed the steel-grey scene to one of pleasant colour;
Yesterday I ventured out into Plymouth Sound to inspect the Breakwater. Another grey and drizzly day but I knew the wind was not due to pick up till midday, allowing me a few hours of safe offshore paddling.
It was a big tide and the breakwater was being used as a roost for many hundreds of Dunlin, that feed on the mud of the Tamar estuary when the water drops.
Half a dozen Purple Sandpipers were dodging the swells as they surged over the top of the breakwater.
I really like Purple Sandpipers. They are ridiculously tame and are difficult to spot because they are only ever found on exposed bits of rocky coast that have plenty of wave action.
As I was watching the birds I glanced round and did a huge double-take (which cricked my neck) when I saw, through the mist, a dozen fins cruising past a hundred yards away.
Astonishing, not just because I had never seen dolphins within the Sound before (although I only paddle here a few times a year), but because of the poor visibility. As I sat and watched they did a satisfactorily close ‘flypast’:
And as if trying to make the point that it really WAS worth my effort coming all this way to paddle at this location on such a dreary January day, the back marker surfaced just a few feet away.
As usual watching these dolphins was an absolute thrill, and it was good to see a couple of calves in amongst the group of twenty or so, which included some really big individuals.
I have been very lucky to see three pods of Common Dolphins in three separate locations in the last two weeks. So….. are there more dolphins around?
Are There More Dolphins Around?
I have been ploughing through all my old diaries in an effort to establish some detail about the numbers of dolphins I have seen. This is thunderously tedious and I have fallen asleep more than once. So I will be as succinct as possible with my findings.
I have been sea-kayaking for thirteen years. For the first seven or eight years I did a lot of fishing so had my head down and didn’t do the miles. Since then I have ditched the fishing and look out for, and hopefully photograph, wildlife.
In the first ten years I saw about a dozen pods of Common Dolphins. In 2016 I set my sights on seeing a whale so clocked up about 500 miles of offshore (more than a mile from the coast) paddling. I have done the same in 2017 and 2018.
This greatly increased my ‘hit’ rate for Common Dolphins because they favour deeper, offshore water. My records for the last three years are:
Common Dolphins: 2016 2017 2018
Number of days seen: 7 11 17
Total number of Dolphins: 81 148 432
So quite a dramatic increase in numbers, approx 100% up year on year.
My porpoise observations have increased as well:
Harbour Porpoise: 2016 2017 2018
Number of days seen: 16 33 44
Total number of Porpoises 88 177 327
Again, a roughly 100% increase year on year.
In 2016 I saw an incredible seven different species of cetacean from my kayak around Devon and Cornwall: Common, Bottlenose, Risso’s and Whitebeaked Dolphins, Harbour Porpoise, Minke and (probable) Sei Whale. In 2017 it was four and in 2018, despite the large numbers, only three species.
Why the increase in numbers?
So it would appear that it is only Common Dolphins and Porpoises that have increased dramatically, and the reason for this has got to be food. Both these species feed mainly on shoaling fish, and abundance of prey such as herring has increased following historic overfishing. Also in both Common Dolphins and Porpoises there doesn’t need to be an actual increase in numbers of individuals because there is plenty of them around in the local seas, they are just changing their distribution and following the food source, which luckily for dolphin watchers is close to the coast of SW England.
It’s like throwing more bird seed out onto the lawn….it brings in more birds from the local area.
This is not the case for whales which also feed on shoaling fish, because there aren’t a load of whales nearby ready to move in on the fish-fest, because they have a slow rate of reproduction and will take time to recover from their depletion of numbers. Having said that, I saw five Minke Whales this year (and have only ever see two before, in 2016), so hopefully this reflects an increase in that species. Minke Whales breed faster than any other whale so have the potential to ‘come back’ quicker than any other.
The very recent spike in reported sightings of dolphins (which, I think are all Common Dolphins) is almost certainly because there are more about, and more closer in to shore, since the New Year. It will also be influenced by the relatively quiet weather in January which means flatter seas and not only encourages more people to be out and about, but makes seeing fins easier. Not many dolphins are going to be seen during a storm. Everyone’s indoors watching Strictly on catchup.
The weather has certainly influenced my recent sightings. I am very wary about paddling far offshore during the winter and at the slightest hint of a wind disappear off up a sheltered creek.
Further influences are that when dolphins are reported more people are looking out for them (especially in relatively sheltered places such as Plymouth Sound ), more observers have got cameras, and there are more drone pilots around (which provide some very watchable dolphin images).
Is global warming involved? I personally say no.. I would think that levels of fishing influence the number of shoaling fish far more than any other factor.
Whatever the reasons, the apparent increase in numbers is good news all round, because everyone agrees that dolphins have a feelgood factor that is OFF THE SCALE.
The Lone Kayaker is on a mission to bring you the best of the UK’s water-based wildlife, as seen from his kayak, and is quietly smug about his latest adventure. Put Love Island on pause. See what is going on in the REAL world.
The relentlessly tropical weather was continuing although a stiff easterly breeze was forecast for SW England (which didn’t actually materialise). On the spur of the moment I shoved a load of camping stuff in the car and headed off to a tiny beach in the middle of Cardigan Bay in west Wales. It was supposed to be still, sunny, and hot.
My main aim was to see some of the Cardigan Bay Bottlenose Dolphins. It was unlikely to happen as an encounter with dolphins is always hit-and-miss, but it was worth a go.
It was indeed blisteringly hot and the sky a deep blue upon arrival and I was soon on the water (lots of people on beach and overwhelming stench of perfume mixed with suncream, with whiff of barbecued sausage). Disappointingly there was quite a surface chop and combined with a stiff tidal flow this made for quite a lumpy ride, especially going past a huge Guillemot colony on the cliff.
The adult Guillemots had their wings partly open to protect their downy offspring from the heat.
The scale of the colony is not only an assault on the eyeballs but the eardrums as well. Quite a cacophony. Take a listen to this: (video)
I unfortunately witnessed one of those incidents which always upsets people watching programs like Blue Planet, even though we know it all happens and is a normal part of nature at this kind of place.
A Herring Gull swiped an unguarded Guillemot chick from the ledge and proceeded to try to swallow it whole on the rocks below. I certainly wasn’t too happy about the (understandably) distressed noise coming from the chick. I tried to man up but I wished I hadn’t seen it and the gull had stolen someone’s pasty instead.
Skip this next pic if you don’t like this kind of stuff: (I certainly don’t)
The sea was a lot calmer around the corner in the bay and I glimpsed a pod of about eight dolphins in the distance. One jumped high out of the water, just once, and then they were gone. So I paddled back to the car and admired the sunset while chatting to a Welsh chap who used to be a coalminer in the Rhondda. We both boiled up our coffee on the wall at the back of the carpark, me using my jetboil, him and his wife using his Kelly Kettle. (Jetboil faster, Kelly Kettle bigger)
I slept like a log stretched out in the back of the car, until 3.05am, precisely. That is when a very noisy diesel car pulled up beside mine, containing a man with a loud and sonorous voice, and a woman who easily outclassed him in words per minute and volume. They were parked very close and their windows were open, and at one stage man said to wife, so boomingly that it made the upholstery shake, that someone appeared to be asleep in the car next door because the windows were down. In the car…yes. Asleep….you’ve got to be joking.
They chatted non stop till I turfed out at about 6, when I bid them good morning and asked if they ever bothered with sleep. The man looked at me like I was the weird one.
Needless to say I was on the water good and early and heading back up the coast full of expectation because the sea was super-smooth, the sky was clear blue, and it was already hot. In the even smoother waters of the bay I spotted the prominent fin and surprisingly large bulk of a Bottlenose Dolphin quite close to the shore. I approached cautiously and waited, some distance away, very careful not to cause any disturbance.
Soon the dolphin surfaced, breathed three times, flipped up its tail, and headed for the bottom again. And even better it had a calf with it, sticking to its side like glue.
The next couple of hours were pretty magical. Sitting in my kayak in shorts and vest and PFD (lifejacket) under a cloudless sky in twenty-five degrees, with no wind and no tidal current to move me around. I watched the pair surfacing, taking one to four breaths and then disappearing for three or four minutes.
I just happened to be sitting in the epicentre of their feeding activity and they kept appearing so close that the blast of their exhalation gave me quite a jump. |I’m sure they were hunting shellfish in the sand below because any school of fish with any sort of brains would move away from the area pretty smartish. The dolphins stayed more or less in the same place for the whole time.
For long periods the calf stayed absolutely tight to the side of its mother (I’m presuming that) but just occasionally during a prolonged dive had to come up for an extra breath of air, and just occasionally went off on a bit of a solo exploration.
But these forays never lasted long and it was soon back in the security of Mum’s side:
I took a breakfast break on the adjacent beach and when I paddled back they were still feeding strong. Another couple of dolphins cam over to join them for a brief while.
At last I dragged myself away and started to paddle back down the coast, further offshore this time. I admired the fishing Guillemots and Razorbills as I went past. There was so much going on that I didn’t have time to admire the ghostly shape of a couple of Barrel jellyfish just beneath the surface, or my first Compass jellyfish of the the year with their very long tentacles.
After such a fantastic couple of hours I could hardly believe my luck when I saw another group of dolphins heading directly towards me. I stopped paddling and waited to see what would happen, hardly expecting an improvement on what I had already seen. And then a pretty hefty dolphin jumped clean out of the water.
Could it oblige and do one more leap for me with camera in movie mode? No, it couldn’t.
100 along Rivers in England (Thames and two Avons)
500+ miles of offshore paddling (more than a mile from the coast) in Devon and Cornwall.
6 trips out to the Eddystone Lighthouse
1 Interception by the UK Border Force
Wildlife seen from my kayak in 2017:
1 Humpback whale seen. Horace, aka Doris, hung around the sheltered waters of Slapton sands in South Devon for an incredible six weeks in the Spring. I saw him (her) twice from my kayak, although the first time shouldn’t really count because he (she) was tangled up in a lobster pot rope.
33 days with Harbour Porpoises seen, a total of approx 177 individuals. Porpoises are very small and very unsplashy and easily overlooked unless the sea is flat calm. For every one I saw, I missed an equal number when all I heard was there ‘piff’ as they breathed, the sound of their breathing carrying long distances over the water.
11 days with Common Dolphins, totally approx 171 individuals. Another 175ish in Spain. Several fantastic close encounters with groups bow riding when I could muster up the power to paddle at top speed. I need to eat more pasties.
Seeing Common Dolphins is extremely unpredictable and random as they range far and wide and usually keep well offshore. However the pods in Torbay around Brixham at the end of the year and running into early 2018, were the closest in, and most regular, I have known.
3 days with Bottlenose Dolphins, totalling 50-80 individuals. Plus 8-10 at Chanonry point in the Moray Firth in Scotland, probably the best dolphin watching location in the UK.
A huge thrill on 18 Dec a couple of miles off Lamorna Cove when a proper ‘stampede’ of 30+ Bottlenosers charged directly towards me in a line all jumping out of the water simultaneously. An unforgettable image.
2017 was by far my best year yet for number of dolphin sightings.
7 Giant Bluefin Tuna sightings, all after 13 Nov. Amazing. I have glimpsed them on occasion before and seen the odd random splash but there seems to have been an invasion of them this autumn. Hopefully it means the baitfish are making a bit of a comeback which will mean more mega sightings of large fish-eating sea creatures.
Four days with tuna at Fowey, with one extraordinary day with scores of splashes and fish jumping right out, one at Mevagissey (double splash), one at Berry Head (double splash), and brief intense feeding frenzy off Lamorna Cove near Penzance.
Loads of seals. All Grey seals in SW England apart from one Harbour Seal near Portscatho.
11 Otters in Devon and Cornwall, plus 6 (before 6am on one day!) in Shetland. A poor year overall for otter sightings; there don’t seem to be so many on the River Torridge. ???
I saw otters on the Rivers Tamar, Taw, Camel and Torridge.
2 Mink. Nasty, nasty little creatures which have almost exterminated Water Voles. Maybe this is a bit unfair because if you are a Mink you do what Minks do and can’t really help it (although leaving Water Voles off the menu would help the public image).
One on the Torridge, one beside the Thames in Marlow!
1 Sunfish at Fowey. There were quite a lot around this year, I just didn’t seem to bump into many by shear random luck (or lack of).
Also one off Gibraltar (also from kayak) on 10 March. A real whopper.
5 days with Portugese Man-of-War sightings, totalling over 50. A good year for jellyfish in general with nine or ten species seen, including the not so common, and unpleasantly named, Mauve Stingers.
Technically Portugese Man o’Wars are not jellyfish, they are Siphonophores. Likewise By-the-wind Sailors (another excellent name) are not jellyfish, they are Hydrozoa. However because I am a bit of a simpleton it seems sensible to lump them all together in one group because they are all jellylike and do what is expected of a jellyfish (i.e. float about and look like they might give you a bit of a sting).
6 Sooty Shearwaters, on four days. A true ocean-wandering seabird which nests on islands in the Southern Ocean. My first ever kayak-seen Sooty ‘Shears’ were the result of my concentrated efforts to paddle offshore this year. 5 seen near Eddystone, 1 near Land’s End.
37 Balearic Shearwaters, on six days. Scattered amongst the much more common Manx Shearwater, usually well offshore.
43 Storm Petrels, on six days from mid June to the end of August. 29 at Eddystone, 1 at Porthcurno and 13, several very close, on a rainy but fortunately fairly windless day off Fowey.
Storm Petrels are probably my favourite pelagic seabird I have seen from my kayak because they look impossibly small and vulnerable when fluttering low over the waves, yet spend all their time when not involved with nesting at sea scattered over the oceans of the world.
They are indeed vulnerable because they seem to be a favourite snack of Peregrines. I have seen a Peregrine snatch a Storm Petrel from just above the surface of a stormy sea off Hartland Point (not from my kayak). Probably a good reason why they usually keep well offshore.
5 ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas. Another of my favourites, and a sensational encounter with one off Fowey on a calm and sunny day, only a few feet from my kayak. By far my best view in SW England.
6 Arctic Skuas . All near Torbay and no decent photos.
6 Puffins. All around Eddystone. The usual gang of dirty-faced immature birds in late Spring , and one (very unusual sighting, I think) juvenile on 21 Aug. A Puffling.
1 Black Tern In Mevagissey Bay with a load of Common Terns. Only my second ever from a kayak, and first ever half decent pic.
8 Long-tailed Ducks. An exceptionally good year and (yet) another of my favourites. The males are one of the most attractive sea ducks. This year I was treated not only to a superb pair at Porthpean, but also a hugely unusual drake in summer plumage on the Taw estuary on 29 Sept.
1 Pink-footed Goose Another kayaking first , and actually I can’t remember the last time I saw a ‘Pink-foot’, even from dry land. Superb close view, in amongst some Canada Geese, on the upper reaches of the Fowey River.
Several pairs of Black-throated Divers in Scotland. The most beautifully marked UK bird?
Kingfishers on 21 days. Everybody’s favourite waterbird.
1 WILSON’S PETREL. I can still hardly believe this. The chances of seeing one of these from a kayak in England are as remote as Captain Sensible becoming Prime Minister. Ironically they are one of the most numerous birds in the world, nesting in the Southern Hemisphere and visiting the northern oceans in our summer. A lot of birdwatchers spend a lot of time staring out to sea through telescopes hoping to see one but hardly any ever do. It’s only during storms that they are likely to be driven close enough to the shore to be seen, so when the sea is calm enough to venture far out in a kayak the petrels will usually be long gone.
So I was pretty lucky to see one a couple of miles from the Eddystone lighthouse, bringing back memories of the first one I ever saw with my father from the deck of the RMS St.Helena off the coast of South Africa, in 1989.
Finally, 3 Favourite Scenes from the year. All great to look at from the depths of winter and give prospective kayakers hope that at least a few days next year might be warm, sunny and still.
The silence, stealth and unobtrusiveness of a kayak, combined with ability to churn out the miles when required, and a seat at water level which allows you to look directly into the eyes of your favourite wild creatures, have resulted in (yet more) memorable encounters recently.
Actually kayaks act as a bit of a wildlife magnet, as I found when I was messing about on the Thames at Oxford.
A pair of Muntjac deer were having a Christmas social with a couple of Roe deer and I drifted to within ten yards of them as they browsed. I got the impression that they just assumed nobody would be daft enough to be paddling on the Cherwell with the temperature only a degree above freezing so had turned their intruder proximity alarm off.
Deer have got noticeably less wary of people over the last few decades as they get shot at less and less, and the same undoubtedly applies to seals. Some of the Grey Seals around the Devon coast are positively tame, and none more so than the gang that hang around in the Teignmouth area. I have said before that I am very cautious about approaching resting seals that are hauled out on the rocks in a kayak, because it can cause them to ‘stampede’ into the sea which at best upsets the seals and at worst can cause injury, especially if there are pups around. This certainly applies to the larger ‘rookeries’ further west in the remoter parts of Cornwall which are less habituated to recreational kayakers invading their patch of water.
However the Teignmouth seals do not just not bat an eyelid as you approach quietly in a kayak, they seem actually to quite enjoy it. Its not very often you get into the position of looking UP at the heaviest mammal to go on land in the UK……..
Paul seemed to get on so well with this particular seal it gave him a brief burst of ‘song’.
It had been joined by a couple of chums on the way back, and as we departed all three remained firmly hauled out and unspooked.
The coast near Teignmouth provides some of the best sheltered open sea kayaking in SW England, with its east facing beaches protected from prevailing wind and swell. There are some cracking little coves to stop for a cup of tea.
The following day was forecast to be extraordinarily wind free so I made the significant effort to drive to Penzance for a paddle round Mount’s Bay. This is a very special and exciting place and offers some great wildlife sightings. Migrating sea creatures rounding Land’s End could well come within range of a kayak putting in at Penzance……and so it was to prove!
I really didn’t expect to see much because it was only a couple of days from the shortest day and I had the impression that the visiting pelagic sea creatures such as whales, dolphins and tuna, which reach a peak in numbers in late summer and autumn, had thinned out.
However the sea was so remarkably smooth that if there was anything on the surface within half a mile of me, I was going to see it. I was so full of anticipation I had completed the 80+ mile drive and got onto the water before the sun had come up. As I paddled out of the harbour, fully protected in thermal gear and drysuit top and bottom as the temperature was about three degrees, I was horrified to pass a chap paddling a sit-on-top kayak wearing just a pair of swimming trunks. He explained, as if it was obvious, that he was ‘just trying to chill himself down’ before his swim!
I heard my first pair of porpoises ‘piffing’ within half a mile of setting off and passed several Loons on the water. A big fishing boat heading into Newlyn was surrounded by so many gulls it looked like smoke, and I wondered if it had lured in some rarer seabirds such as skuas as well. A couple of ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas passed at distance so clearly it had.
I couldn’t resist a bit of an offshore jaunt as it was so calm and the sea looked very benign under the cloudless skies. I skirted past Mousehole about two miles offshore and kept at that range as I followed the coast west. Hundreds of passing Guillemots.
I have found that the sea really livens up half way between Mousehole and Lamorna. There’s a bit more swirl and I suspect it gets significantly deeper here. In exactly this spot a year ago a Minke Whale surfaced with a blast just metres behind me as I was watching a Gey Phalarope.
So I stopped for a cup of tea just in case. To my amazement I again heard quite a splash just behind me, and lumbered my kayak around (which is quite slow) to see the silvery flashes of a load of Giant Bluefin Tuna surging and splashing in quite a frenzy. Long thin fins all over the place, and one jumped right out. I reckon I saw about ten in all. Only twenty metres away, so I was exactly in the right spot. Unfortunately it was all over in about thirty seconds, just when I had got my camera ready. Typical.
After this I thought it would be a bit greedy to hope for dolphins as well, so I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw a double splash and what looked like something jumping, maybe a mile away further out. I paddled hard towards it but after five minutes with no more signs of life I throttled back.
Suddenly, directly in front, about fifteen huge-looking dolphins exploded from the water in perfect synchrony, heading straight for me. Followed by a load more, absolutely rocketing through the water a top speed and jumping and splashing all over the place. An astoundingly large area of sea was suddenly a confusion of white water.And it was all heading my way! My excitementometer blew a fuse and I fumbled to get my camera ready. The lead dolphins leapt past a few feet away and sped off, followed by two more waves. I could see that they were too big for Common Dolphins and initially thought they were Risso’s, but a few passing close showed the classic Bottlenose profile. Alas my camera chose that moment to not work properly in burst mode so I missed the dramatic synchronous leaping of dozens of dolphins.
Absolutely incredible. They went passed so fast in such a flurry I had difficulty assessing the number. It was at least thirty, it could well have been fifty, or more.
Even more remarkable was their behaviour. Although I have seen individual Bottlenose Dolphins doing spectacular jumps, they are usually surprisingly unobtrusive and quiet for such a large creature (two or three times the size of a Common Dolphin). Most groups I have encountered close inshore but once came across some ten miles offshore near Eddystone. But these were not very fast and splashy, and were very inquisitive. Today’s were not interested in me one little bit.
Today’s group seemed to be on a mission to travel as fast as possible with as much white water as possible, behaviour more typical of Common Dolphins.
That is why I think these were ‘transient’ or possibly ‘offshore’ dolphins that are not resident locally and are migrating past. It was a significantly larger group than is usual for Bottlenose Dolphins around the UK, and seemingly different behaviour, although it may have been just because they were in a hurry.
Interestingly I was reading that there are only 300 Bottlenose Dolphins resident around the UK, and I might have just seen fifty! I’m pretty sure that to see this sort of number around the UK is very rare (especially from a kayak).
They headed directly towards the coast and then turned to run parallel to it towards Land’s End keeping at least a mile offshore.
Wow! and Wow! again.
I even saw a festive jellyfish, a translucent cylinder with edges glittering with an array of shifting multicoloured lights, better than anything you will see hanging from a Christmas tree.
Surely no more excitement. Wrong. A chunky looking skua that flew directly over my head was an immature Pomarine, only the second ever from my kayak.
And just another fourteen porpoises (groups of 4, 4, 3, 3) and many more heard ‘piffing’ but not seen. And another dozen Loons.
And just to finish off, Eddie the Eider at Penzance Harbour.
If someone said to me that they had seen all these incredible wildlife sightings in the sea in a single six hour, sixteen mile kayak trip in mid December, I would struggle to believe them.
If you were thinking that a flat calm, scorching hot Mediterranean beach heaving with paddleboarders and buzzing with jetskis would be a wildlife desert, you would need to think again.
This sea along this section of coast, six miles east of Estepona and within sight of Gibraltar, seems to be particularly fertile. Although on this occasion Gibraltar, thirty miles away, was hidden in mist for the whole six days of our visit. Apart for about five minutes when just the top was visible.
I think it is because the tide sucks the Atlantic into the neck of the Mediterranean to just about here, and the meeting of the warm and cold waters provide a bit of a plankton bloom.
The sea state was perfect for kayaking. Virtually no wind and hardly any swell for the whole time. Just the occasional patch of fog which prompted me to always carry my GPS while paddling offshore.
On the first day I was thrilled to encounter half-a-dozen Cory’s Shearwaters carving around low over the water with their effortless almost bat-like flight. And a kayak in their path didn’t seem to worry them…they just sliced past a few feet away from me with a very slight ‘whoosh’ of their feathers. Absolutely fantastic. Every so often they would shallow plunge-dive into the sea from only a few feet up.
They shared the sea with groups of Balearic Shearwaters that were passing with a bit more purpose to get somewhere particular. And was that a Sooty Shearwater? Not easy to establish that it was all-brown because I was looking into the sun; maybe it was just a dark Balearic.
I came across a resting flock of Cory’s and Balearics a couple of miles offshore, and the five bigger shearwaters seemed to be quite happy as I drifted within yards of them.
Next morning I was out early and headed way offshore again. More shearwaters and I was very surprised to see a Bonxie getting involved with the action. (it was actually no surprise to see a Bonxie ‘in the thick of it’, because that is what Bonxies do best). I was just amazed to see one in The Mediterranean in early July when they should be up north in Scotland or Iceland. Maybe a youngster that hadn’t bothered to migrate.
While sitting about on glassy water absorbed by the seabird action I heard a series of ‘splashes’ approaching. A large number of dolphins scattered over a wide area of sea were heading towards me. They were travelling very fast and spent such a short time at the surface I really couldn’t see any markings and didn’t have a hope of a photograph. But surely Common Dolphins. At least thirty or forty, but probably a lot more.
After lunch I went for a paddle along the coast with Becky and we had soon spotted another group of dolphins, this time a lot slower, and feeding ,judging by the attendant gulls and shearwaters.
As we paddled at top speed to see them a gin-palace powerboat also saw them and adjusted course, as did a jetski…groan!
The reason they were slow is that there were a lot of calves in the group, and they were sticking like glue beside their mothers. They changed direction and swam right past us. In kayaks we represented very little threat to the dolphins but the jetski was far to keen to get his photos and chased them far too vigorously. Becky managed to scowl at the driver and, credit to him, he did back off.
We watched and had a pretty reasonable view for about fifteen minutes. The pod of about 15 then swam directly offshore, pursued by the jetski at a slightly more respectable distance. Still not good, however, because some of the calves were very small and so understandably slow.
Incredibly, we had another dolphin encounter the next day, no doubt helped by the completely smooth surface which makes seeing fins that much easier. Jake and Christina reported seeing a lone dolphin in the morning, and scanning the sea from the shore with binoculars later I saw a big-looking fin a couple of miles away. I powered towards it in the Tribord Kayak which has a pretty decent top speed (about 5 mph). However it took ages to get within naked eyeball range of the dolphin, and it was heading away from me. I watched it surface a couple of times several hundred yards ahead of me and then gave up. Fatigue.
It was a big dolphin with a prominent dorsal fin. I would think a Bottlenose but I just wondered about a Risso’s, especially as I had seen a couple of gulls finishing off some dead cuttlefish which are Risso’s dolphins favourite snack. It didn’t look grey or pale so Bottlenose looks most likely.
On the last day I glimpsed a large streamlined creature, the size of a dolphin, jumping out of the water once only. Just for a fraction of a second. Then nothing more, and nothing surfaced to breathe. I’m pretty sure it was a giant Tuna. I need to get a photo of one of these soon as this is the second time I have seen one in Spain, in addition to a similarly fleeting view of a group in Falmouth bay last autumn.
All these creatures shared the busy Mediterranean waters with numerous pleasure boats and commercial fishing boats, including large offshore trawlers whose throbbing engines provided the constant sound backdrop to the superb viewing.
It had to happen sooner or later. After many years of being incredibly lucky with the weather during my Spring trips to Scotland, mid May 2017 looked as though it was going to let me down. The forecast was stiff winds from the west and intermittent rain. The west coast would have been no fun. I still can’t believe I was so fortunate with my two month expedition round the west coast and islands three years ago when I only lost one or two days to strong winds.
Plan B was to paddle in the relative shelter of various freshwater lochs, and ideally the ones with no roads along the sides to maximise the chance of wildlife encounters.
I drove the 650 miles from Holsworthy to Taynuilt beside Loch Etive near Oban in one very long day, and during the night as I was curled up in my sleeping bag the car was rocked by a gusty wind coming down from the mountains. Loch Etive was definitely no-go for a kayak so I sought the quieter waters of Loch Awe a few miles away.
It was windy and quite warm and dry so pretty reasonable. I drifted close enough to a Dipper for a reasonable photograph, always difficult because they are generally not that tame and are usually amongst dark rocks which makes getting the exposure right difficult.
In a sheltered bay on the north bank I was very surprised to come across a Great Northern Diver, still in its winter plumage (although it was 12 May). This looked like a juvenile from last years brood.
I was very keen not to frighten it by getting too close but it allowed me to drift to about twenty yards away while it continued to dive. I got what I thought were some great images but noticed that every so often it would ‘gag’ slightly in a unnatural manner.
Upon reviewing the images I fell into an instant gloom when I saw the fishing line wrapped around its bottom mandible and trailing out behind it. Poor blooming thing. It’s flown all the way from Iceland or further to grace the UK with its amazing presence, just to get tangled up in discarded fishing tackle.
There wasn’t a hope of being able to help it as it seemed to be swimming and diving quite normally (and probably catching some fish) but I think its long term outlook is pretty hopeless.
I was lured into one of the lochside Bluebell woods for lunch by the dazzling colour.
Just as I was completing my twenty mile circuit and trying to avoid the many fishing speedboats around a marina on the southern side of the Loch, I had a superb view of a couple of Black-throated Divers, these ones in full breeding plumage. They are exciting enough to see when dressed in their two-tone winter outfit around the bays of SW England, but in their breeding plumage they are arguably the UK’s most beautifully marked bird. This is definitely the case if you are photographing in black-and-white.
I was very careful not to approach too close to cause them distress, but they seemed relatively happy with several small fishing boats plying past and me floating about in my kayak, and continued to look for fish by dipping their heads underwater.
Black-throated Divers at their nest sites are super-sensitive to disturbance which includes photographers getting too close for that perfect photo.
I spent the weekend with son Henry who was working in Stirling, and the wildlife action continued, now focused around his enormous telephoto lens rather than my kayak. While sitting in his hide at 6am it was a thrill to hear,simultaneously, a cuckoo calling on a distant hillside, a snipe drumming overhead (sounding more like a mosquito), the bubbling call of a dozen Blackcocks which were ‘lekking’ (displaying) nearby, and the honking call of a pair of divers (Red-throats I think) flying overhead. Tremendous, and well worth the effort of turfing out of bed early. And we saw a Hen Harrier.
The forecast was wet so when I left Henry on Monday morning I opted for a circuit around Loch Tummel clad in full waterproof gear. Exciting because I was paddling new shores but otherwise grey and damp.
I was determined to set up my tent for at least one night and although I was very aware that the further west I drove the wetter it would get, I had my eye on the southern shore of Loch Arkaig. It’s got no road access for ten miles along its shore so should feel nice and remote. I should have a decent paddle but not too far if things should ‘blow up’ (meteorologically speaking).
The first day started dry and quite still but gradually deteriorated into sheet rain with a fair old howling headwind. However I was not going to let it beat me so I dug in with the paddle and ploughed on, waves breaking over the deck, cheered up by the tumbling song of Willow Warblers and peep of numerous Common Sandpipers.
A lucky drier interlude allowed me to pitch my tent at the mouth of a small river a couple of miles before the end of the loch, and after a brew I paddled into an even stronger headwind to the sandy beach at the head of the loch. Typical, this camping spot was better as there was a large area of short-cropped flat grass with no-one in sight. Even better, a Greenshank was piping its slightly haunting and slightly mournful song somewhere upwind not very far away. To me it is the ornithological equivalent of bagpipes.
No way was I going to paddle back to my tent and bring it here in these conditions, so I enjoyed the downwind run back to my camp and settled in to read my book. I emptied out a tin of catfood I had brought to lure in the local Pine Martens but needless to say it hadn’t been touched by the time I departed in the morning.
And as usual I fell asleep within five minutes of starting to read. Fortunately a Hercules passing overhead about 5 foot (or so it seemed) above my tent woke me up. But then it was time to go to bed anyway.
The next day dawned sunny and I enjoyed the twelve mile paddle back to the car. A Merlin crossed the loch high above my head and I could hear the bubbling croon of Blackcocks coming from the patch of forest more than a mile away over the water.
My next loch was Loch Ness and I had a specific purpose. I had arranged a rendezvous with a friend who was pedalling (not paddling) from Land’s End to John O’Groats at at the pub in Dores at the eastern end of the loch. I had to be there at 1pm so I thought I should set off by 5am to allow for the odd break.
Lovely sunny day, light following wind, great paddle, but virtually zero wildlife apart from two floating (and smelling)deer carcases. And limited viewing and scenic surprises as the loch is dead straight. The trees at the end of the loch which were my destination, were over the horizon when I set off.
However it was great to see my chum Andrew plus cycling companions, and we were joined by my brother Tim who works nearby. Super pub in super location by nice beach.
The promise of lighter winds the following day lured me down to the sea at the Moray firth, with the hope of an encounter with some of its resident Bottlenose Dolphins.
I paddled out from Ardesier on the southern shore near Fort George in glassy conditions. On approaching Chanonry Point a distant splashing encouraged me to crank up the pace as it must have been dolphins. Sure enough they soon appeared, and as Bottlenose dolphins always do, they seemed big. This is because they are, and also because the individuals of the Moray Firth pod are reputed to be even bigger than normal as they are one of the furthest north groups in the world and need extra blubber to keep warm.
Two outliers swam past before a group of five came past satisfactorily slowly and close to allow me a few pics. Interestingly the photographs show a sort of crease below the forehead on some of the bigger dolphins giving them the appearance of a frown, confirming perhaps that they do indeed have more blubber than some of their species that inhabit warmer climes.
I paddled a few miles up the coast of the Black Isle for lunch then back past Rosehearty beach. It was great to hear the constant cheerful call of passing terns.
The dolphin watchers were out in force as I crossed back over to Ardesier. The dolphins obliged by fishing a few metres off the point for much of the afternoon….I could even see their fins through binoculars from two miles away when I got back to the car.
My final short paddle adventure was in the rain at Loch Insh, the highlight being a couple of broods of newly hatched Goldeneye, and an Osprey.
Although I did break the appallingly slow and traffic laden drive back to Devon with a quick ten miles on the River Avon at Tewkesbury. Perfect, warm ,still.